Natural Perspectives: Spending time in desert area of California

Vic led his Irvine Valley College Emeritus Program bird class for adults to the Mojave National Preserve this past weekend. I tagged along to take photos and provide a guest lecture on the natural history of the area. We stayed for three days at the Desert Studies Center near Baker. We saw fantastic scenery, found birds and other interesting critters and learned more about this fascinating and lightly visited part of California.

The 1.6-million acre Mojave National Preserve was created when Congress passed the California Desert Protection Act in 1994. About half of the park is designated wilderness and is open only to hikers and horseback riders. But nearly a thousand miles of roads — some paved and some 4WD only — crisscross the preserve, making access easy.

If you've ever sped from Barstow to Las Vegas to get through the desert as fast as you can, you're missing an incredible adventure. The best parts of the Mojave Desert are not along I-15. The desert is best enjoyed slowly and close up, as we did it. But while the Mojave National Preserve is only 3.5 hours from Huntington Beach, the lack of good visitor services keeps many from exploring the area more thoroughly.

We were fortunate to be able to stay at the Desert Studies Center at Soda Dry Lake. While the center is open to public visitors, the lodging and dining rooms are open only to organized groups with a desert-related academic purpose. Vic's bird class certainly qualified.

Soda Springs at Soda Dry Lake has attracted many different kinds of people over the centuries, from Native Americans and early explorers Kit Carson and Jedediah Smith, to wagon trains of pioneers, miners and railroaders in the mid to late 1800s.

Radio evangelist Curtis Springer came upon Soda Springs in 1944, finding only the crumbling foundations of an old military outpost there. Springer coined the name Zzyzx for his resort and advertised it as "the last word in health." He filed a mining claim to the property, but what he did with it was build a health resort. Using men recruited from Skid Row in Los Angeles for labor, he constructed the cinder block and stucco buildings at Zzyzx in part out of World War II surplus materials. For example, the metal door to the room where Vic and I stayed came from a Liberty ship that was scrapped after the war. The door frame was under six feet tall and Vic conked his head on it on one occasion.

Springer sold health "remedies" from his retreat at Zzyzx. The main effect was that of a laxative. For his purposes, the salts of Soda Dry Lake were perfect. However, we were advised not to drink the tap water there. While it isn't poison, it has the same effect as a colonoscopy prep. Staff provided purified drinking water for us.

For decades, visitors came to Springer's health spa for rest and relaxation. But because Springer never mined anything, the government reclaimed the facility in 1974. The California State University system took over management in 1976. It operates Zzyzx as a place for researchers and students of the desert.

Vic and I first visited Zzyzx on a bird-scouting trip to the Mojave National Preserve last spring. Vic was impressed enough to make arrangements for his bird class to stay there. The rooms at the Desert Studies Center cost only $16 a night per person. But that remarkably low price comes with a catch. The rooms are stark with gray concrete floors, white walls and black curtains. Furnishings consist of two gray metal twin beds with mattresses, a desk and two plywood shelves for belongings. Guests must bring their own bedding, towels and toiletries. But there was a good heater in the room, and with a low of 38 degrees, we greatly appreciated that amenity.

The open-air community bathhouse had hot and cold running water, flush toilets and showers. But with no door and a foot-wide screened gap between the walls and roof, the bathhouse was open to the elements. One quirky feature was that coffee cans covered the toilet paper to keep mice from taking it for nesting material.

I really didn't want to take a shower on those cold evenings, which was the only time available due to our daytime birding schedule. But I knew you readers would want to know how bad it really was. While the hot water was running, the shower was fine. But drying off afterward was an invigorating experience, to say the least. I don't think I've ever gotten dressed as fast.

When the outside lights at Zzyzx are turned out at 10 p.m., the stars pop out of the heavens. Here in the city, it's easy to forget how many stars are in the night skies. But the lack of light meant that we had to carry flashlights to go to and from the bathhouse. We were warned to be on the lookout for rattlesnakes, tarantulas and scorpions on our night walks.

We didn't see any of those critters while staying there, but a gray fox darted to and fro over the grounds at night, delighting those who saw it. In the daytime, we found tracks from desert bighorn sheep leading down to some water on Soda Dry Lake. Vic and I found two tarantulas on this trip, but the rattlesnakes and desert tortoises are asleep for the winter.

The chef at the center prepared delicious hot breakfasts and dinners for us and packed a big cooler with a picnic lunch for the group. Vic's class birded from dawn to dusk. Our days started when the sun kissed the hills and made them blush a brilliant pink, and ended when cool blue shadows raced across the playas.

The Mojave turns magic during dawn and sunset, with spectacular panoramas at every turn. As the sun sank behind the hills, layer upon layer of mountain ranges turned muted blues and purples and the sky blazed unbelievably pink, orange, yellow and red. In fact, the sunset at Kelso Dunes was so spectacular that Vic had a photographers' revolt on his hands. Binoculars went down and cameras came up. Birding was done for the day as a subset of the group stayed behind to catch the brilliant sunset.

Staying at the Desert Studies Center was quite an adventure, but Vic and I loved it. So did our students. It made us feel a part of history to stay in that lonesome outpost. We'll definitely take classes there again. Visit my blog at greenlifeinsocal.wordpress.com to see more photos.

VIC LEIPZIG and LOU MURRAY are Huntington Beach residents and environmentalists. They can be reached at LMurrayPhD@gmail.com.

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